Chapter 2 – Thane
“Ah, damn!” whispers Zelleus. Then in his practiced peremptory ship’s captain tone: “Your name, boy?”
“Suti was my friend. . . my only friend. I got him from my older brother. Now he’s gone and Suti is dead.”
“You got him. . . ? What’s a Suti?”
“My dog! I taught him to care for me. To protect me. That’s all he was doing, protecting me. But they said he was mad and they killed him. They would have had me too but I ran and hid from them. Now I don’t know what to do. I need my Suti.”
Zelleus knows there are no living pets on Pallarti. So, Suti had to be a cy-dog, a cy-mutt, some Mercantile kid’s plaything that the older brother either found abandoned, or stole, and re-programmed to give the younger for company and protection. Simple facts that ache to be put together in a coherent story. And now he was caught in it. This youngster, what was it’s story, or if truly human, his story?
“Please stop your crying, it disturbs me.” The sobbing stops instantly. And, “Do you know who I am, Thane?” he thought to ask the youngster.
“No. Don’t know most people. I mostly hide. People hurt you; take what you have, and take you to sell if they need a slave or money. I don’t care. Take me, kill me. I won’t live much longer. No brother, no Suti. I cannot find food and defend myself now. So take me, get it over with.”
The youngster extends his long, thin arms to Zelleus who, with his powerful reach, grabs the hands and pulls him up. He scans for hidden weapons – finds none. Only a quite human body covered in smelly, dirty rags. A street waif, abandoned or parents dead. Mother, probably a prostitute. Father probably rounded up to work asteroidal mines, never to return. Brother probably taken for the same reason. So it is on the outer frontier worlds. The probabilities that make up facts.
And it was those probabilities, those facts, the still uncorrelated data, that prompted him into his next move.
“Come with me Thane. I am a spacer captain; I have my own ship. I’ll take you with me, make you part of the crew if you will do everything I tell you. You must be able to learn fast. If you fail I’ll dump you on the first inhabited world I land on, or transfer you to an ore freighter. Got that? If you cause trouble I flog you. Serious trouble, I kill you. Understand?”
The hands drop. “Yes. I’ll be your slave, commander.”
Commander huh? Oh well, in this business, one promotion’s as good as the next and won’t get you killed any sooner. Why not? “I don’t want slaves. I need people who can think independently, act independently and question commands openly when they don’t understand them. To start you’ll be ship’s boy. Do you accept?”
“Yes commander. If I stay here, I die. I’ll go with you.”
“Fine. Now come, walk with me. We find food, good land food. Then spacer clothes for you. First lesson, walk beside me and never address me as ‘commander’ but simply as Zelleus.”
He and the boy walk around a foam-cement silo and head into the downtown proper. Smells of raw sewage mixed with those of meats and vegetable cooking assail Zelleus’ nostrils yet he doesn’t mind. He’s on the ground and soon he will be sipping on liquor distilled from real grains and eating food grown in real soil. The boy holds his stomach tightly with both hands and Zelleus realizes the kid is starving. They locate a food station and walk under a low canopy of dirty transparency to sit at the end where the long row of benches curves along the wall, providing protection for one’s back. Roughly carved tables, put end to end separate the eating area from the kitchen. Seating is benches provided only on one side of the tables, forcing all to sit side by side facing the kitchen.
A heavy set woman approaches, wiping as she goes. “Yeah, an what’ll it be gents?” She eyes Thane suspiciously but decides against trying to have him thrown out. Zelleus’ stare is enough to instill a moment of wisdom in her dull mind. She attempts a shrug and a smile that succeeds only in revealing a couple of missing front teeth. Probably the result of a friendly tap from husband or business partner. It’s La Rosa.
“What smells so good?” asks Zelleus, watching the boy’s eyes grow big as, not waiting for an answer, he orders the special for both of them. “Now listen Thane, I know you’re hungry and probably have never even seen a real or decent meal. This is good food but it must be eaten slowly and reverently, understand? That’s another lesson. I watch. If you wolf it down, I don’t take you. So eat carefully. I don’t tolerate slobs.”
“Yes comm. . . Z-Zelleus. I’ll be careful.”
Of course Zelleus’ purpose is just to slow the boy down so he won’t die from swallowing too fast.
In the course of the meal only one group, three thugs, dare importune Zelleus. The bigger of the three, making it obvious he’s the leader, reaches over to Thane and puts his fist in the boy’s bowl. He grabs a handful of meat and vegetables, smirking at Zelleus. Before the food reaches his mouth Zelleus has swung his right leg over the bench, drawn the knife and the thug is skewered, sliced open neatly with the cheelth blade. Speaking with a throaty growl mimicking the local jargon, Zelleus orders the other two to take their leader’s body and disappear.
They hastily oblige. He then orders a fresh bowl for the boy, making him stop eating from the “desecrated” bowl.
“You see boy, earth humans don’t change. Now I’ve collated facts on them through the comlibs-1, going way back to before their space days. They starved, maimed, exploited, oppressed, enslaved and killed each other, sometimes one-on-one as you just saw, sometimes with prolonged conflicts, wars. So far my historical facts tell me that they hate, or worse, fear, whatever is really good for them. They seem to spend most of their time plotting ways to take what others have, or think they have, and developing increasingly esoteric methods to cause hurt and pain. They get pleasure from this, whether directly or indirectly. Most of them believe that such ways are necessary to their survival. They see themselves not only as predators (which they certainly are) but credit their expansion in space to that bestial trait. They claim it makes them tough and La Rosa, my boy, is a prime example of what comes from this way.
“I tell you this: if you hang around them, believe them, or eat and sleep with them, you become like them. So children grow up like their parents, ad infinitum. I will look upon you as an exception: you have no parents, likely no family at all so maybe we can begin with a fresh slate, huh? You will remember that.”
The boy nods, hoping he is not asked if he understands, or what he did understand. Being with a protector, feeling safer than ever before and eating proper food from a bowl that was served specifically for him is all he can handle. If this is a dream, he thinks, then I’m going to make it last as long as I can before I wake up. But eventually Zelleus makes him stop eating. He reaches over and grabs his wrist when the boy tries to shovel the leftovers in a fold of his ragged clothes.
“None of that around me boy. You are a human – and a spacer – and you will behave like one, not like a dumpfrag-2. Now let’s get you some spacer gear. Come.”
1-comlibs: computerized libraries networks
2-“dumpfrag”-local jargon; a large omnivorous pig-like rodent found on the planet Mostal